Friday, December 13, 2019

The Stockings Were Hung By the Chimney With Care, in the Hope ... That Democracy Would Not Get There

Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.”
-Stephen Moore, co-founder of the Club for Growth and former Trump campaign advisor-

The Heritage Foundation and the Fraser Institute, both conservative research organizations, have ranked Hong Kong number one as the “freest economy” in the world. Apparently the millions of protesting residents of Hong Kong didn't get the message.

The ideal and fanciful world of so many of these conservative organizations often seems like a tour through Alice in Wonderland but the influence they exert across the globe cannot be ignored. See Democracydoesn't matter to the defenders of 'economic freedom.'

The start of the impeachment hearings in the House Judiciary Committee last week offered us a glimpse of how American capitalism and democracy interact in the United States. Four constitutional scholars spoke to the committee about the Constitution and what it means to all of us.

A Democratic member of the committee asked one panelist what would be the result if, based on the current evidence, the House did not impeach the president. The response was precise: “We would no longer have a democracy.” The Republicans on the committee claimed there was nothing to investigate. John Adams, our second president, once said that, “There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

Yes, words do matter. Two, “Originalism” and “Textualism,” familiar to constitutional scholars, were words that came up several times in the hearing when discussing the meaning of the text and its interpretation. In brief, Originalism and Textualism narrow the interpretation of the Constitution and claims that it means no more or less “than what it meant to those who originally wrote and ratified it,” – the Founding Fathers. For some scholars it becomes less of a living document and more like a sacred totem to be decoded. (see “The Scalia Problem” below).

While unknown to most Americans, the consequences of narrow judicial interpretation could profoundly affect the average person in so many negative ways, including in areas like discrimination, voting rights, health care, corporate personhood and environmental regulations. The twenty-first century, sadly for many, has arrived.

At least once, the innocuous sounding term “unitary executive theory” was brought up. The unitary executive theory offers an expansive belief in the power of the president to control the entire executive branch of government and surely would be supported by most autocrats on the planet.

William Barr, Trump's current Attorney General, appears to strongly subscribe to this view. There is a clear and compelling reason why Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to confirm staunchly conservative judges, with lifetime appointments, as fast as possible. To strengthen democracy is not the reason.

Of course we've never had a literal democracy in this country but part of the American narrative--and myth--says that we do have a democratic republic with representative government and three separate but equal branches with distinct duties and responsibilities. The ultimate power is vested in “we the people.”This was the genius of the American experiment in self-government when our Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788.

Democracy was not on the top of the “to-do” list for our Founding Fathers in the 18th century. James Madison, the author of the first draft of the U.S. Constitution and fourth president of the United States said that, “Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property...”

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center, Republicans Now Are More Open to the Idea of Expanding Presidential Power, indicates that while most Americans would be uncomfortable giving more power to our presidents, conservative Republicans -- by more than 50 percent – believe we could more effectively deal with “problems” if the president had more power. This number has doubled since March 2018.

In another poll, Trumpgreater than Lincoln?, ordinary Republicans said Trump was a better president by 53 to 47 percent. One respondent said, “Lincoln only freed the slaves.”

Whether or not we commit national suicide remains to be seen. But we are tempting fate, with a significant portion of Americans more inclined toward authoritarianism and less inclined toward democratic institutions.

In the early 1930s the German industrialists and the military considered Herr Hitler a useful idiot that could be controlled -- but the German lumpenproletariat considered Herr Hitler their savior.

Additional Reading:

Sunday, November 03, 2019

How Many People Does it Take to Turn on the Lights

Getting its history wrong is part of being a nation.
(Ernest Renan, 19th century French philosopher)

Above that 3.5% threshold, there hadn't been any failed movements...
(Erica Chenoweth, political scientist)

Only 20 years ago something like 70 percent of protests pushing for major political change were successful. This trend, however, reversed in the mid-2000s and success rates have now dropped to around 30 percent, this according to The Interpreter, published in the NYT, October 25, 2019.

Global mass protests have been growing year after year since World War II but have now reached an unheard-of level? Many people are aware of the unrest roiling countries across our planet, including here in the U.S., but possibly a lot less are aware that protests are now more likely to fail.

The “why” is of course extremely important. Here in America, as well as globally, failure to understand protest objectives and strategies will certainly lead to frustration, unsatisfactory results and increasing cynicism. Too much is at stake for those of us seeking systemic changes. It is important to remember that the anger and the resistance is not going to stop, regardless of what governments might do to control the desire for change, equality and economic justice.

Some of the answers, in part, may come from the work of Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard who studies civil resistance across the globe and has written numerous articles on the subject. She published a book several years ago entitled, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. The Extinction Rebellion movement has credited Chenoweth's ideas for their success.

It is a complicated subject but Chenoweth offers four broad reasons why protests have stalled at the present time. First, more countries are favoring authoritarianism over democracy. Second, social media makes protests easier to start but also makes them more likely to fail as well. Third, social polarization has risen dramatically. Four, authoritarians are getting better at manipulating their citizens.

Nationalism has risen across the globe brought about by economic uncertainty, immigration and fear of losing one's social and cultural place in society. Climate change could exacerbate all of the above. Global corruption has entrenched defective political systems and working “within” the system is perceived to be less likely to bring about positive democratic changes for increasing numbers of people.

Chenoweth points out that dictators in general in recent years have emerged gradually rather than by overnight coups. It becomes a slow, steady drip toward repression. Orban's Hungary may be a good example of this as well as Turkey. Poland appears to be following the pattern, wrapping itself in “national identity” and Catholic conservatism. What happens right here in the U.S. remains to be seen.

Omnipresent social media may be the most interesting factor of all. We all know that large groups can be mobilized rapidly with cell phones and Facebook accounts. But putting large numbers on the street quickly with no underlying structure or deep commitment to a particular cause ultimately leads to very little.

For anyone that remembers the civil rights movement of the 60s or for that matter the anti-war protests, the women's movement or the environmental movement knows that organizing and planning was essential along with building support at the grass roots.

Chenoweth believes social media “really advantages” repression. Governments across the globe have certainly learned how to co-opt media and push their own messages as well as rally sympathizers without, and this is important, sending in the tanks and the usual heavy handedness.

Erica Chenoweth states that nonviolent campaigns are successful 53% of the time compared to 26% for violent protests. Within this framework she refers to the “3.5 Rule,” a tipping point.

What this means is that success is very likely when 3.5% of the entire population is actually participating. In the U.S. this would amount to some 11 million citizens, in a country of more than 320 million people.

Hong Kong, an autonomous region of China, at the present time offers an interesting perspective on protests. The participants remain disciplined and focused on their goals. It started out as a protest by students and academics confronting a law that would allow China to arrest Hong Kong residents and bring them back to the mainland. It began with a particular interest group or class of people but has now spread across all sectors of society as more residents can envision their own self-interest.

Some 2 million residents of Hong Kong, out of a population of more than 7 million people, are protesting and marching daily, with very little violence committed by the participants. This is more than 3.5 percent of the population. Another million non-participating residents are probably sympathetic to the overall goals of the campaign.

Successful protest campaigns require much more than a crowd gathering and waving placards periodically. It means that, while quantity is important, the quality of the commitment and the discipline of the participants is far more significant in sustaining a long term movement. We Americans, among others, ought not to be under any illusion that oppression—gradual or otherwise—that we see across the globe won't happen in the U.S.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

A Druid Nation

The well-known reality that generations of Americans have been taught in school is that 102 deeply religious Protestant men, women and children from England landed at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts on December 21, 1620. They were later to be referred to collectively as Pilgrims.

But instead of these Pilgrims, imagine the same number of Buddhist monks had arrived. Or perhaps a boatload of Druids came ashore on that cold, miserable day in December. Envision the last remaining members of that mysterious “pagan” priesthood, first mentioned in Julius Caesar's diaries in 55 B.C, standing on the beaches of North America.

Would the original inhabitants of North America, the Indians, have been treated better? Would there have been slavery? Would we have learned that we're merely one part of the natural world around us?Yeah, what if?

As we Americans tear ourselves apart in 2019, it becomes ever more plausible that seeing eye to eye or at least “getting along” with each other could become simply impossible. Yeah, but what if?

The arrival of Europeans or for that matter our imaginary Buddhist monks, probably meant the civilizations of North and South America were doomed from the start, almost from the moment the Spanish conquistadors clanked ashore in their suits of armor in the fifteenth century, more than 100 years before our pious Protestants arrived in North America.

It was, however, not because of European technology---or Christianity, that caused the massive destruction to the civilization of the first inhabitants of North and South America. The unstoppable enemy was disease, unwittingly (at least initially) brought by Europeans, of which the the indigenous population had no immunity.

Because of individuals like Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), Charles Mann (1491), Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower) and many others, we know, among other things, that geography matters, a lot. Unlike the early inhabitants in the Western Hemisphere, Europeans had domesticated animals such as oxen, cows and pigs that did not exist in North and South America.

Europeans contracted diseases that jumped from animals to humans and over time they built up a degree of resistance to them. Columbus, Cortez and other Europeans traveled with the ultimate weapon—not gunpowder—but hideous viruses like smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles. It turned out to be an unimaginable “ethnic cleansing” of entire societies. It may have been the greatest pandemic in human history.

While population numbers of North and South America, just before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 15th century have been estimated from a low of 8 million to a high of more than a 100 million people, this has been a subject of controversy and debate for some time. But there appears to be little doubt that millions could have been killed by Europeans through disease, slavery, wars and environmental destruction.

It's most likely that no society that existed in North and South America in 1490 imagined their world would come crashing down upon them. After all, they knew from their creation stories that generations of their ancestors had strolled along the same paths they now walked.

This has been the story of human history, one group of people supplanting another group or being absorbed into the new tribe.

Yet, there is something different possibly happening today. What if there are no humans from somewhere else to replace anyone. What if there are no more human sounds, here in the United States or anywhere else. Yeah, but what if?

Friday, February 22, 2019

What Health Insurance

Sharp, stabbing chest pains, stomach ulcers, cancer have been my lot in life. As well, I have been unable to avoid severe clinical depression, erectile dysfunction and, on occasion, bloody ejaculate. But I am a survivor.

For the past 18 years I've been a Standardized Patient in the Greater Kansas City area, having been involved in the training of hundreds of medical students. I play the role of a patient with some real or imaginary concerns.

Patient-centered medical care is today the overarching mantra in the majority of medical schools throughout the country. Medical schools are training students to make the patient a participant in his or her medical care. The patient needs to feel in charge. It is the patient's decision. It's so obvious isn't it?

Well the not so good news is that health care in the United States has more to do with revenue streams, bottom lines and marketing, rather than something seemingly as abstract as actual patient care. Just possibly it's not about the patient making any decision.

Elizabeth Rosenthal, physician and editor in chief of Kaiser Health News, has stated that, "There is no free choice. Patients are stuck, and they're stuck buying American." And Atul Gawande, surgeon and writer, has said that, "It's not that we make all the money. It's that we order all the money."

I have worked in several health care institutions, from large teaching hospitals to junior colleges with nursing programs. Among other things, in addition to having played numerous standardized patient roles from first year medical students to residents, I have taught exam skills to medical students and trained standardized patients.

Health care, if divided into its broad components, would include insurance, hospitals, physicians, pharmaceuticals and medical devises. If you wander into the weeds you can learn about billing, coding and collections. Then of course there is research and consolidations. Finally there is the Affordable Care Act or ACC, or simply Obamacare.

While the Democrats have tried their best not to upset powerful vested interests, the Republican health plan has been a constant attempt to destroy the ACA from the very beginning, but with seemingly no idea what to replace it with. Last but not least is Medicare and Medicaid, subjects unto themselves.

I've often told medical students to go to the main foyer and watch who comes in the door. Those are your patients. You'll be greeted, for example, by obesity, diabetes, hypertension and those who have no insurance or what they have is inadequate. You will also notice how young some of these people are.

Self-help websites are exploding on the internet. I recently came across one offering 20 tips on how to prevent or slow down the onset of dementia: Don't smoke, control blood pressure, watch your weight, healthy diet, exercise and so forth. It's essentially preventive medicine, what a healthcare professional ought to be speaking to a patient about, and which every American should have access to ... but doesn't, unlike most of the developed countries.

The problem  is that health care is not the same as selling cereal or deciding which deodorant works the best.

I don't even play a doctor on television but i have worked in the healthcare field for close to 20 years, training those future doctors whom we patients sincerely want to put our trust in, rely upon and feel confident that our needs will be met. Hoping for the best is not a health care system nor is "I got mine."

Saturday, February 16, 2019

An Alien Probe

Oumuamua (O-mua-mua) is the name it was given. It's a Hawaiian word which means “messenger sent from the distant past to reach out to us.” It was some 33 million kilometers (20 million miles) from us when first discovered in October 2017, the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system.

Certainly an exciting discovery for astronomers but it has also encouraged speculations from both scientists and the general public, especially when Avi Loeb, chairman of Harvard's astronomy department, speculated that a “hypothetical propulsion devise” could explain its, er, strange trajectory. Propulsion devise? Was he suggesting something artificial in origin? Loeb has not wavered in his original opinion.

It turns out that this cigar-shaped object, slightly less than a half-a-mile long, is an unusual shape for a naturally occurring asteroid. Well, could it have been a comet, as some have suggested. But others responded that it had no “out gas,” which comets have. Most curiously, Oumuamua accelerated ever so slightly as it left our solar system. Why would it have accelerated—and how? Endless questions for astronomers to ponder.

The reality is that our solar system is not isolated. Why couldn't we have been visited without anyone knowing it? It was only in 1925, not quite a hundred years ago, that half of all homes in the United States had electrical power. The first commercial airline flight in the U.S. took place in 1914 from St. Petersburg, Florida to Tampa, Florida, which is a 25 minutes automobile ride today.

In the U.S. alone, imagine all the scientific discoveries and technological advancements that have occurred in the last 100 years, which would have been unimaginable to Americans at the end of the First World War in 1918. Now consider the changes that have taken place on planet Earth in 500 years or a 1,000 years or the beginning of the Neolithic era 10,000 years ago, when we humans settled down, developed agriculture, built cities and created our cultures.

Is it conceivable, in spite of vast distances, that civilizations far more technologically advanced than ours could have visited our solar system in person without being detected or managed to do so with a very sophisticated satellite of some kind? Well, we can speculate. Now imagine a civilization 150,000 years older than ours, roughly the time we humans might have been able to recognize our own ancestors in Africa.

What might our first encounter be like? Well the track record for us humans is not especially positive in so many ways. On the other hand, our alien visitors who manage space travel could regard us as curiosities, nothing more, and decide they have more important things to do. This strikes me as the best outcome in the long run. I wouldn't want our space visitors to be searching for a new food source and we're it.

But, the more likely outcome is probably not so interesting. Our technology has far outstripped our evolutionary development. We may now have the means to turn Earth into an unlivable planet because we haven't developed the cognitive skills to avoid such total stupidity. Imagine our alien probe reporting back that Earth is merely another dead planet of no interest to anyone. Sort of like we never existed in the first place.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Seduction of Mein Kampf

People who shut their eyes to reality simple invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.
(James Baldwin)

Adolf Hitler and Mein Kampf? Haven't these subjects been analyzed over the years ad nauseam? Well yes, but....

The Dublin Review of Books recently published an essay by Albrecht Koschorke entitled On Hitler's Mein Kampf: The Poetics of National Socialism. Koschorke himself almost offers a timid apology for bringing up the subject and even mentions “Godwin's Law,” which states, according to the Urban Dictionary, that the longer an online argument goes on and becomes more and more heated, the more likely someone will bring up Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. The person invoking these names effectively forfeits the argument..

But Koschorke, a German literary critic, offers a compelling examination of the subject because of what he calls the “mounting radicalization” in our own time.

Here, in the United States for example, we could draw up a list of worrisome changes that are taking hold of American society. Some might include:

  1. Politicization of everyday life
  2. A disregard for the importance of 'truth”
  3. Devaluing of intellectual excellence
  4. Knowingly accepting outright lies from our leaders
  5. Vulgarization of society in general
  6. Scapegoating, immigrants for example, and Muslims in particular.
  7. Tribalism

You could argue that many of these conditions have reared their head in the United States before, It's true. You could also say that some of these conditions have been with us from the very beginnings of the country, which Alexis de Tocqueville, among others, pointed out in the early 19th century. True enough.

Yet it is also true that they are collectively growing and spreading across America in 2017 and they are reasons to be concerned if we are at all interested in equity and a viable democratic republic (recognizing that some people aren't remotely interested). The intriguing—and important question—is always why did it happen and why does it continue to happen.

Koschorke states that it is important to understand 'the confluence of circumstances” that made national socialism in Germany possible in the 1930s.

Mein Kampf was published in 1924. Academic readers at the time considered it unoriginal, ludicrous, poorly written and simply rabid. It is all of these things and more. In college I managed to get through about 50 pages or so before tossing it into the wastebasket. The point, however, is that Hitler's intended audience was never academics. This was not his constituency.

Koschorke says of the book, “A menacing vacuum emanates from Mein Kampf—a license for adherents to react with a 'Just you wait' that bristles with lustful sadism.” For Koschorke, it is not that most people didn't read Mein Kampf or finished it, but that those who chose to wade though it entered into a kind of “secret society.” Perhaps most important in this closed circle was the nature of power. It was power that was contemptuous of any engagement with its opponents. Ultimately it was irrelevant whether one believed in Hitler's “literary” rants or more important in his far more mesmerizing public ranting and ravings. His followers knew what they wanted.

But who was Hitler's constituency according to Koschorke? Well, it wasn't the “scarcely literate or lower order of society.” For Hitler it was those with limited education and those who could be called the “failed” or “faltering.” Koschorke defines Hitler's constituency as those people who lived in a condition of existence “without predictability or security,” which in turn affected material or psychological well being. It was easier as time went by to blame the Jewish “conspiracy” and the Social Democrats for the failure of democratic institutions in Germany. By the mid-1930s it mattered little what anyone thought.

Numerous books have been written on the the rise of Fascism and Nazism, along with the assorted dictators that took power in the 1920s and 1930s. But certainly a loss of confidence in democratic institutions was a factor, a factor that can be seen spreading across the globe today.

Once you get beyond nationalism and making “holy mother Russia” great again, it's by in large a thug state, a kleptocracy. China, supposedly the new superpower is, as someone once described it, “capitalism in a Leninist cage.” Dismal as one can imagine. You can today go across the globe from India and Turkey to right wing nationalism in Europe and realize that democratic institutions and beliefs are under assault, exactly what occurred in Europe more than 80 years ago.

Here in the United States the slow unraveling leading to inequality and authoritarianism has been going on for a good thirty years. There is no guarantee this time for a “happy” ending.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Dare We Must: Yeah We Must Call It Treason

Some may remember a Stephen Schwarzman back in 2010. He was and is the billionaire CEO of perhaps the largest private equity firm in the country. He became hysterical over Obama's attempt to make some “very slight” changes to the carried interest charges. He compared it to “Hitler invading Poland in 1939.” Just more nonsense from the privileged class.

No, carried interest charges is not something that most of us need to worry about. It was devised by and for the very rich, sort of like the tax havens across the globe that have been in the news lately. It also remains in the “tax overhaul” plan the Republican cult wants to get passed as fast as possible this week. Of course, if we actually closed all these assorted welfare programs for our pampered parasite class we probably wouldn't have to screw the vast majority of Americans ... or at least as badly as what might very well happen.

While we have been distracted by the degenerate, half-bright sociopath in the White House, the Republican Congress has been crawling frantically through their own swamp desperate to appease their overseers. After all, they have been told in no uncertain terms—no 19th century, no more campaign contributions, from us, the kleptocracy.

No, no, possible collusion with a foreign power, conflict of interests, failure to disclose income tax returns, environmental degradation, unqualified nominees, health and safety, growing inequality, gutting of health insurance, third world U.S. infrastructure repairs, corporate personhood etc, etc and etc is not the priority. The Republican Congress is counting on an electorate unable to tear itself away from the latest distraction on social media, television and talk radio.

The Republicans will give the one-percent over one-fifth of the tax cuts, while the top 5-percent will get just under half of the tax cuts. Oh and they will have to be paid for, not by some fanciful economic expansion or trickle down nonsense, but by all the rest of us. The holy grail for the parasite class is of course Social Security and Medicare. But the millennials have not been forgotten. Well, they actually have, been forgotten, actually.

There will be no American dream for the overwhelming majority. For that 40 to 60 year old group, well, work is good for you. Stay healthy. Don't waste time on vacations. You may even win the lottery. That's the definition of Libertarianism: FREEDOM to be unemployed, under educated, sick and powerless to do anything about it. Oh, and we haven't even talked about net neutrality. But it's too complicated for most Americans anyway. The Democratic Party? Well, we don't have time right now. They're still deciding on who they are.

Oh, speaking of Libertarians, at least the rich ones. Many of them don't believe in a lot of the childlike nonsense they yap about. They just don't give a damn about the “democracy” thing. Regardless, at this point we have only a fig leaf of a democratic republic anyway. Yeah, I'm inclined to think we're dealing with treason; we have been betrayed. Sorry, I forgot to mention the “chained CPI tax hike.” Look it up.